Data weather: a tempest for your teapot

The New York Times Magazine, came out with its 2nd Annual Ideas of the Year issue. There’s lots of good stuff here, from botox parties (originally blogged here way back last April) to haunting more-real-than-real flower/scanner art. One item that jumped out at me was
News That Glows, about a simple ornamental desktop orb that changes color as, for instance, the stock market goes up and down. Green means that stocks are up, yellow means nada mucho, and red means stocks are headed down. Millions of people have trained themselves to squint at tiny numbers scrolling by on the TV or computer screen. Why not make the same information a pleasant part of your office landscape? I think this is a wonderfully sensible idea. You can think of it as “data weather” in the sense that, as important as weather is, a glance out the window is enough to see if you need an umbrella. Ambient Devices, the manufacturer of the glowing orb, has a nice description of the philosophy behind ambient displays on their website.
The late Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC fame was a longtime proponent of ubiquitous computing, ambient displays, and so-called “calm technology.” As the article says

Consider how counterintuitive this is. We’ve been cramming stock tips, horoscopes and news items onto our computers and cellphones — forcing us to peer constantly at little screens. What if we’ve been precisely wrong? It’s the new paradox of our data world. ”The way to become attuned to more information,” Weiser and Brown noted, ”is to attend to it less.”

One of the first ambient displays to receive wide notice was the
Dangling String, an artwork at PARC that showed how busy the local network was by twirling a piece of string. A quick look would reveal a whirling blur (a busy network) or a twitching but mostly limp string (light activity). It was a useful and entertaining barometer of activity in the building. Given the galloping improvements occurring in cheap display technology and wireless networking, you can expect to see ambient displays of data weather coming soon to a desktop near you.

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